The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez is like an affecting merger between Angels in America and EM Forster’s Howards End. A two-part, seven-hour play about gay life in contemporary Manhattan that deals with the shadow of the Aids crisis. Our sense of the painful legacy of the disease is imbued by the spiritual attributes of a house. In Stephen Daldry’s lucid, remarkably involving production, the cast of a dozen men (Vanessa Redgrave appears and makes a big impact as a bereaved mother only towards the end) sit round and perform on a minimalist table-like stage whose centre rises and falls. The studied absence of clutter gives shape and salience to the host of questions the play raises: principally those to do with the connection between past and present. What should gay men hand down from one generation to the next?
The central character is Eric Glass (excellent Kyle Soller) a good-hearted young lawyer whose vain, exasperatingly shallow longtime lover Toby (superb Andrew Burnap) has built his insecure success as a novelist and playwright on fleeing the truth about his past. Toby becomes obsessed with the star of his new play and cancels his impending nuptials to Eric. This sets the scene for the conflict of values that Lopez has drawn from Howards End. Eric’s liberal friends are not best pleased when he is romantically attracted to the older billionaire real-estate property developer, Henry Wilcox – who is even named after Forster’s arch-materialist. Henry’s now deceased partner, Walter, wanted his friend Eric to inherit the house in upstate New York that – much to the fury of isolationist Henry – Walter turned into a refuge for the dying at the height of the Aids crisis. The question is whether his wishes will ever be granted or just hidden away.
There are many different tones in the play which the production (lit with poetic depth by Jon Clark) captures beautifully. The haunting welcome – both matter-of-fact and wondrous – that Eric receives when he first visits the house takes you to a realm beyond tears. There are vivid, caustic debates over, say, Henry’s contention that the response of gay men to the Aids crisis was a classic case of conservatism in action. The acting of the American-British cast is extraordinarily accomplished.
Samuel H Levine flips arrestingly between rising thesp Adam and his foundering lookalike, the rent boy Leo, whose desperation is indelible. For my taste, there was bit too much of EM Forster who wanders in and out as mentor to these modern boys and dispenser of much sage advice about the transmission of history and need to be open to heartache. There is a character in the piece called Tucker who describes a “faux artist” because although his works are proficient, he deliberately doesn’t mean them. Can you, I wonder, mean your art too much? There was the odd cloying moment in the Forster sections that gave me pause. However Paul Hilton (who doubles as EM Forster and Walter) could not be more moving in his humane, modest encouragement. His performance is one of the triumphs in an event much to be recommended.
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